Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Author Appreciation: The Books of Ian McEwan

Today marks the release of the latest novel by British writer Ian McEwan, someone I think is one of the top living writers in the English language. His new novel, Solar, is out today in the U.S. I haven't read it yet, though the first thing I do today will be to buy a copy hot off the presses, and I hope to have my review done next week. In the mean time, I wanted to talk a little about the books of his that I've read, for those of you who might not be familiar with this amazing, brilliant writer.

I first started reading McEwan in college; I don't remember what exactly attracted me to his books, but I remember spending almost the entirety of winter break one year curled up in my dorm's living room with Black Dogs and The Cement Garden, two of the most chilling books I'd read, or have ever read. I don't remember much more about them except that they were creepy, creepy, creepy- and dazzling at the same time. McEwan is what I like to call a master prose stylist- someone who really knows how to put words together on the page to dizzying effect.

The next book I read was his novel Enduring Love, about a couple, Joe and Clarissa, whose relationship is strained when a man named Jed becomes obsessed with Joe. I'm not big into stalkers but again, I just couldn't help but admire McEwan's writing.

I read The Child in Time, about the effect of a missing child on a marriage, on a plane flight a couple of years ago; I liked it a lot, though it's probably the most low-key of those of McEwan's books that I've read, the closest to a sweet love story. I was on my way to Hawai'i for my honeymooon and if I were going to choose a McEwan book to bring on my honeymoon, that was probably the best one!

Just about all of McEwan's books (at least those I've read) spin out a plot from some kind of trauma in the characters' lives, be it physical or psychological; the trauma sits at the center, even if the blow doesn't come until the very end. Sometimes, as in his 1998 Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam, the threat of violence lies poised like the sword of Damocles, hanging just out of view. Other times, like in the incredible Atonement, the violence is multi layered. In Atonement, a young girl is traumatized by sexual behavior she doesn't understand, and this trauma leads her to implicate a servant in a rape, which she also witnesses. One trauma leads to another until several lives are irreparably torn asunder. On Chesil Beach is another story of sexual trauma, this time about the worst wedding night in the history of wedding nights. In both books, credibility hinges on the reader believing that these people could be as naive as they are; if the reader doesn't believe that, the stories would fall apart.

Then there's the book I hated- Amsterdam, the book for which McEwan won the Booker Prize in 1998. This book centers on a deteriorating friendship between two men, which unwinds gradually to a stunning denouement. The ending of this slim, elegantly written volume, which I loved up until that ending, made me want to throw it out the window. I've since learned I'm not alone!

Finally, there's the book I'll never read- The Comfort of Strangers. I saw the movie, starring Natasha Richardson, Rupert Everett, Christopher Walken and Helen Mirren, at some point in my late teens and it traumatized me! I was not surprised, several years later, to learn that McEwan wrote the novel, presumably in his creepy-stalker phase. If the movie bothered me as much as it did- it gave me nightmares- I can only imagine what McEwan set down on the page.

When I think about why I love McEwan's work, I'm reminded of Howard Zinn's saying "You can't be neutral on a moving train." One way or the other, McEwan is going to stir you up- you may be moved to tears or may have nightmares, or you might just be stunned into silence by the sheer skill with which he wields the English language, but he's going to make an impression. You may not like every book of his you read, but you'll never forget it. How many authors can you really say that about? I'm sure that whatever I think of Solar, I'll have strong feelings!